The biggest absurdities behind Britain's travel testing regime

Two Covid tests, one positive, one negative – Ilze Kalve/iStockphoto

“Our key message is: test, test, test.”

When World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this in March 2020, few countries adopted the mantra with quite as much blind faith as Britain. We’ve tested like it’s going out of fashion, making other countries look positively slovenly when it comes to swabbing.

Just take a look at our testing numbers for 2021 compared with other G20 nations (below) – no other major country comes close. In fact, over the duration of the pandemic, only six nations have conducted more tests per capita than the UK (Austria, Cyprus, UAE, Slovakia, Denmark and Luxembourg).

Has all this testing done us any good? There’s little doubt that targeted testing – of hospital patients and care home staff, for example – has plenty of value. However, while it is difficult to draw concrete conclusions with so many factors in play, those countries that have tested the most don’t appear to have been noticeably more effective at blunting the pandemic.

Britain, for example, is 25th globally in terms of Covid deaths per capita – despite its rapid vaccine rollout, while Austria and Slovakia are both in the midst of their third (or is it fourth?) lockdowns.

No other group – with the exception of schoolchildren – has been the target of testing fever quite as much as travellers. And, even after 20 months of travel restrictions have failed to stop every variant reaching every corner of the planet, the Government’s crosshairs remain firmly trained on the nasal passages of globetrotters.

As of 4am today, the UK’s pre-departure tests are back. Therefore if you want to go abroad you will probably be subjected to at least three swabs: one before you leave (depending on your destination), a second no more than 48 hours before you come home (the pre-departure test), and a third when you arrive in Britain (the Day 2 test). If you’ve had the cheek to remain unvaccinated, you’ll need to take yet another test on Day 8.

One might forgive this arduous regime if it was proven to be effective, and not simply a way for private companies to fleece those with the temerity to leave the country. One might be indulgent if it made logical sense. But when the virus (and its latest variant) is already widespread here, why discriminate against travellers? Even beyond the obvious, there are countless absurdities and loopholes that litter the system.

Testing to come home before you’ve left

According to the Government, the pre-departure test forms part of our defences against the dreaded omicron variant that still hasn’t killed anyone, anywhere. However, if you’re going away for less than 48 hours – a quick city break in Stockholm, perhaps – you can take your pre-departure test on British soil. After all, why would anyone wait until they’re on holiday to do it and risk being stranded abroad?

Stockholm, Sweden – Pocholo Calapre / EyeEm

The Day 2 test loophole

Disreputable travellers have for months been getting around the requirement for a Day 2 test by simply inputting old PCR test codes onto their Passenger Locator Form. The form is the only point at which a person is requested to show proof they have purchased a test before entering the country.

But it has been an open secret all year among regular travellers that the same test codes can be reused on multiple occasions as those operating the system do not cross-reference them against the books of private testing companies. Only recently have authorities, following checks by The Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation, been made aware.

The problem with pre-departure testing

As with the Day 2 test, pre-departure checks are open to abuse. Instead of visiting a clinic in person, one can take a test kit away with them and then self-administer it, sometimes while on a video call with a health professional. However, other companies allow you to simply upload a photograph of the completed test to an app for verification. Needless to say this isn’t exactly a foolproof – or fraud-proof – system.

The never-ending list of exemptions

If these restrictions are an essential tool for keeping us safe, why is the list of jobs that “qualify for travel exemptions” as long as your arm? How – pray tell – will the rules keep omicron out when quarantine and testing is not required for aircraft crew, bus and coach drivers, civil aviation inspectors, Channel Tunnel workers, defence personnel, diplomats, drivers of goods vehicles, rail staff and port workers, among others?

NHS tests are free – why not travel tests?

Any time you fancy, you can visit the NHS website, or waltz into your local pharmacy, and blag a free jumbo pack of lateral flow tests. You don’t even need to use them. If you were so inclined, they could go straight in the bin.

Of course these tests aren’t really free. The Government is spending tens of billions on them, and this will inevitably be paid back in the form of higher taxes. But if our leaders are willing to subsidise somebody who fancies taking a test to see their gran, to go to the football, or just to pop to the Post Office, why not travellers? They are pumping money into the economy, after all. It is equally logical.

The waiting game

Under the current rules, returning travellers must stay at home until they receive the results of their Day 2 test. But once you’ve paid the testing company their money, there is very little incentive for them to hurry back with the good (or bad) news. Indeed, Twitter is awash with tales of long delays (often lasting several days) forcing people to stay at home or – if caught – face a hefty fine (not that much is being done to enforce the isolation period, of course). This further hinders Britain’s economic recovery, as people cannot spend money in restaurants or shops. If the Day 2 test isn’t scrapped, testing companies must face consequences for being tardy.

Confusion over the pre-departure testing deadline

The Government is continuing to issue conflicting advice over when Britons need to take their pre-departure test, even after the new rules have come into force. Its website, on some pages, says the tests should be taken “not more than 48 hours before” departure, but on others the deadline is “in the 2 days before your service to England departs”.

It could be worse

Perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that we’re not copying Canada, which – for some inexplicable reason – won’t accept negative tests conducted in Africa as proof that its citizens are Covid-free. Apparently nobody told them that the continent has laboratories to rival the best in the world. Instead, Canadians returning from the region must fly to a third country, get tested, and then board another flight to Canada. That’s science for you.

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